Q&A: Whistle-Blower Cynthia Cooper

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Bill Jackson / Gil Ford Photography

Cynthia Cooper

When TIME called Cynthia Cooper in 2002 for an on-the-record interview — her first since she had uncovered massive fraud in the WorldCom accounting books, which would eventually add up to $9 billion and the imprisonment of five executives, including CEO Bernie Ebbers — she was not excited to hear from us.

As a WorldCom employee, Cooper had never intended to go public (a member of Congress had released her internal audit memos to the press), and the drama she was watching from the inside was the downfall of a hometown company she loved.

Cooper relented after we told her we wanted her to meet two other famous women of the moment: Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower from Minneapolis, and Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower. All three women became TIME's Persons of the Year.

Still, there were things Cooper could not say back then, since the Justice Department was actively investigating the company. Now Cooper has told the full, twisting tale in a new book, Extraordinary Circumstances: Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower.

TIME: Most whistle-blowers say they would not do it again. Many end up isolated, depressed and unemployed. Would you do it again the same way?

Cooper: Yes, I would. I really found myself at a crossroads where there was only one right path to take.

I think it would have been helpful to me to understand what whistle-blowers go through, and that's why I included a chapter on that.

In the book, you managed to retain a surprising amount of empathy for everyone involved, even the most egregious offenders, like CFO Scott Sullivan. Was that hard to do?

It was easy to empathize with the investors. WorldCom was the only Fortune 500 company headquartered in Mississippi. My parents had invested in the stock.

It was not always easy to empathize with the people who committed the fraud. But I wanted to allow readers to put themselves in the minds of others. To minimize fraud, we need to understand what motivates people to participate. Some of these people were average citizens not much different than many of us.

As you uncovered the fraud, there seemed to be a series of powerful men patting you on the shoulder and telling you not to worry. But you kept listening to the voice inside your head. How do you try to cultivate that conviction in your own daughters?

It's important to be able to dig down and find your courage, which isn't always so easy. My mother would say, don't ever allow yourself to be intimidated. That was really ingrained in me, and I think that helped.

A mid-level trader at the French bank, Société Générale, was arrested the other day for allegedly orchestrating a $7 billion fraud. Do you see things in these kinds of stories that are painfully familiar?

Yes, I do see similarities. Frauds typically start small and then they begin to grow. People rationalize their decisions. It will be interesting to see if there was collusion involved. That's one of the commonalities across all these big frauds we've seen: there is collusion — and it is has gone in most of these cases up to the very highest levels of the company. That is how you bypass controls.

Why did you leave WorldCom in 2004?

I was more than ready for a fresh start. Most whistle-blowers leave within a year. I stayed for two years until MCI had emerged from bankruptcy. I knew that when I left, many of my staff would lose their jobs. So I stayed until most had found other employment.

In the book, you describe the last time you spoke to CEO Bernie Ebbers — in a Manhattan courthouse during a break in his trial. Soon afterwards, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Do you have more to say to him, or to anyone else convicted in the scandal?

Scott [Sullivan] is still in prison, of course. [Controller] David Myers and [accounting director] Buddy Yates have served their sentences. They are living here, and it's very likely that I will at some point run into them. I doubt I'll ever see Bernie Ebbers. But even for Bernie, for all of them, my hope and my prayer is that they would take these experiences and try to use them to help other people.

Scott Sullivan was in some ways more directly responsible for the fraud than Ebbers. But he only received five years, since he cooperated with the prosecution. Do you think that's fair?

Many criminals who commit violent acts, including rape and murder, receive shorter sentences, as the appellate judge in Bernie's case pointed out. In my view, Congress should take another look at the sentencing guidelines to be sure that they are meeting congressional intent.

What is the most common misconception people have about WorldCom's demise?

A lot of people think that the fraud caused the downfall of WorldCom. In my view, neither the fraud nor the discovery of the fraud caused the downfall.

The company's stock had fallen from a high of $64 in June of 1999 to 83 cents at the time the company announced the [earnings] restatement. So I think you have to understand the role of certain corporate decisions — loading the company with debt, poor acquisition decisions, also the Internet mania that swept the country and the telecomm implosion in general.

Do you keep in touch with the other two whistle-blowers?

Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, Sherron and I gave a presentation a couple months ago in Charleston. She's doing great. I send Christmas cards to Coleen every year, and I hear from her over e-mail. She's gotten very politically active.

When we spoke in 2002, you had never been thanked for your work by a WorldCom executive. Is that still true?

You know, there were lots of people within the company who did thank us, who were supportive, and we received hundreds of letters from people outside the company, especially after the TIME article.

I guess that's a no, then.

[Laughing] We didn't do it for the thanks anyway.